Painted Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)


Next spring PJ and I are going to have an exhibition at the French Cultural Center in Boston. The subject will be “The Painted Romanesque” – a collection of pictures of brightly painted Romanesque churches in France.

We are all accustomed to see Romanesque and Gothic churches with their austere bone-white pillars, walls, and vaulting and assume this look was the intent of the builders. When modern churches in the classical style are built, they usually follow this aesthetic guideline. The truth is that the medieval churches were often brightly painted with geometric patterns, frescoes, and polychrome capitals. In many churches we can see the remnants of these paintings, like in the Basilique Saint Julien in Brioude, among others. Using these fragments as a guide, modern restorers repainted the churches as they believe they might have existed originally. Whether or not their choices meet with approval, these interpretations give a powerful indication of how these churches may have originally looked.

Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne)

The Église Saint-Nicolas de Civray is one of many churches in the Vienne that are brightly painted. The wall and arch decoration and the murals were painted by Pierre Amédée Brouillet in 1865.

North side aisle, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray  (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing and north transept, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray  (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing and north transept, Église Saint-Nicolas, Civray (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne)

Notre Dame la Grande was restored by Charles Joly-Leterme (1815-1885) in 1851. He painted the columns and the vaults with “Romano-Byzantine” motifs. Some critics criticize the work as fantastical and over-wrought. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans called the paintings “tattoos”.

South side aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers  (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers  (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Sainte Radegonde

The controversial 19th Century repainting of the choir of Sainte Radegonde was done by Honoré Hivonnait. Hivonnait received the commission in 1849 to conserve the 13th Century paintings in the church, but instead he recreated them in a neo-Gothic style. His intent was to provide a clear liturgical message to the 19th Century pilgrims to the Church. While the original paintings were destroyed, apparently there was consistency in their iconographic message. The artistic license was not appreciated – Hivonnait’s work provoked the wrath of Prosper Mérimée, the inspector of the Monuments Historique.

Église Sainte Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Église Sainte Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Sainte-Radegonde, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme)

Between 1857 and 1860, a certain Anatole Dauvergne was paid 60,000 francs to whitewash Saint Austremoine. He must have been possessed of some kind of artistic inspiration, because he came up with this bold and dynamic result.

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire  (Puy de Dôme)  Photo by PJ McKey

Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy de Dôme) Photo by PJ McKey

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Basilique Saint Austremoine, Issoire (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier)

Anatole Dauvergne made his presence known at another church when he painted the Église Saint George in Bourbon-l’Archambault. There are a few remnants of the original painting in the church, consisting of foliage and checkerboards alternating ocher and blue the first bay of the north side aisle. Dauvergne used these as a model in painting the choir and ambulatory.

Ambulatory, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Ambulatory, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir and hemicycle, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Choir and hemicycle, Église Saint George, Bourbon-l’Archambault (Allier) Photo by PJ McKey

Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime)

We have found no record of who painted the lovely church in Marignac. The decoration has been described as “unfortunate medley” but is by no means unattractive. The floral designs and arabesques contribute to the overall decor and highlight and emphasize the sculptures.

Apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Apse, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing arch, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime)  Photo by PJ McKey

Crossing arch, Église Saint Sulpice, Marignac (Charente-Maritime) Photo by PJ McKey

There was an aesthetic basis to this practice of painting with bright, radiant colors. Hugh of Saint Victor wrote in the 12th century, “With regard to the color of things, there is not need for lengthy discussion, since sight itself demonstrates how much Beauty it adds to nature, when this last is adorned by many different colors.” We know that many people prefer the austere look of the unadorned stone in their Romanesque churches. Certainly this view fits our modern notions of what is appropriate in worship. But we also prefer our classical sculpture from Greece and Rome as the pale marble, forgetting that these works too were painted with loving care by their sculptors.

14 responses to “Painted Romanesque (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Congrats on the upcoming exhibition! As for the restoration, like I asked you before about Chartres, I suppose some of these men crossed the line beyond restoration, but they did a beautiful job nonetheless.

    • Nathan, no question some of the restorers went into the realm of fantasy, but so did the most scrupulous of restorers, Viollet-le-Duc. His restoration of Pierrefonds created a fantasy chateau right out of a fairy tale, and had little to do with the original structure. For the more egregious examples, Paul Abadie’s work at Angoulême and (especially) Saint Front de Périgueux were worse, because he destroyed what was there in order to create his fantasy.

      • I tried looking up Periguex and the English wikipedia showed nothing.The French one alluded to him literally destroying part of the church, just want to make sure I read that correctly? I can’t believe that was ever allowed.

      • The Cathédrale Saint Front of Périgueux was restored by Abadie in the 19th century. And he did destroy part of the church. In those early days, the requirements for restoration were much looser and Abadie took full advantage. If you think that was bad, look what happened at Germigny-des-Prés!

  2. Dennis, this is an interesting exhibition, but the 19th century interventions could raise several questions, including that surrounding colour. I presume that most of the surviving colour is done in fresco (which tends to be quite stable) but if any paint was done in secco then it might have been subject to changes due to atmospheric conditions. However the emphasis on colour should help to inform us better about the architecture and sculpture in these churches.

    • Tony, so many of the restorations did damage to the surviving structures. We do know from surviving elements in many churches that they were painted … what we see now are re-creations of what it might have looked like. Thanks for the comment.

    • This is the Viollet le duc diktat. He thought churches should look like they looked at an arbitrary early date. (I say arbitrary because a lot were consecrated for use long before they were finished.) Then he went a little farther and decided they should all look like what they would have been if their builders had known as much about 12th and 13th century Gothic as 19th century Viollet did.

      I see no reason for that attitude. Obviously over the centuries, someone has repainted the columns, presumably with more or less the same colors as were there originally. We should thank those that did so, not attack them. Had they not down so, we would not have known what colors were used.

      But really, this is a great problem. When one has a site which has been rebuilt five times. In restoring that site, which of the five to use as a model is a purely arbitrary choice. A much more logical choice than the “original” design is whatever version was worshipped in longest. Which was thus blessed by the grace granted at 1000s of masses, it’s walls impregnated with the prayers of 1000s of thousands of our ancestors.

      I am saying that if the Zionists succeed in rebuilding Herod’s temple, they should still keep the Wailing Wall. Herod’s temple was used for less than a century. Pious Jews have been praying at the Wailing Wall for 1900 years.

      It als is sad that 19th century Greeks accepted the Viollet-le-duc diktat that the oldest version is best. Thus they toar down all the churches their ancestors had built from 100 AD to 1800. To reveal the pagan artifacts built before 100 AD by pagans who had no cultural or ethnic connection to the Greeks of today. Judging by churches on Crete, some of the medieval Greek churches were as good as medieval churches in the West. But now we’ll never know what the Churches looked like.

  3. Dennis,

    Well said about the preference of some for an unadorned Romanesque style, but the importance of the more ornate style that marked the rise of the International Gothic style–without which we would have lost the brilliance of painters such as Giotto and architects such as Brunelleschi. Furthermore, many people simply appreciate a cathedral (and rightfully so) without understanding the importance its architecture and window style played in the development of art as we know it.

    Thanks for all the work–as an academic and photographer, it is a blog I greatly enjoy.

    B

    • Thanks, Brett, we’re glad to have you as part of the Via Lucis world. Personally, I always preferred the spare lines of the Cistercian architecture to the more florid architecture of the time. But over the years as I have begun to get an understanding of the monastic world in the Middle Ages, I have come to appreciate the adorned churches. As for the Gothic, it is like a saying that I heard in the world of wine … a newcomer to fine wines prefers Bordeaux to Burgundy, then prefers the Burgundy, and eventually returns to Bordeaux with a new appreciation. I have done so with Gothic, mostly because of the impact of the transitional churches like Sens, Senlis, and Laon.

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